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  1. Compound-specific stable isotope analysis of individual amino acids (CSIA-AA) has emerged as a transformative approach to estimate consumer trophic positions (TPCSIA) that are internally indexed to primary producer nitrogen isotope baselines. Central to accurate TPCSIA estimation is an understanding of beta (β) values—the differences between trophic and source AA δ15N values in the primary producers at the base of a consumers’ food web. Growing evidence suggests higher taxonomic and tissue-specific β value variability than typically appreciated.
  2. This meta-analysis fulfills a pressing need to comprehensively evaluate relevant sources of β value variability and its contribution to TPCSIA uncertainty. We first synthesized all published primary producer AA δ15N data to investigate ecologically relevant sources of variability (e.g., taxonomy, tissue type, habitat type, mode of photosynthesis). We then reviewed the biogeochemical mechanisms underpinning AA δ15N and β value variability. Lastly, we evaluated the sensitivity of TPCSIA estimates to uncertainty in mean βGlx-Phe values and Glx-Phe trophic discrimination factors (TDFGlx-Phe).
  3. We show that variation in βGlx-Phe values is two times greater than previously considered, with degree of vascularization, not habitat type (terrestrial vs. aquatic), providing the greatest source of variability (vascular autotroph = –6.6 ± 3.4‰; non-vascular autotroph = +3.3 ± 1.8‰). Within vascular plants, tissue type secondarily contributed to βGlx-Phe value variability, but we found no clear distinction among C3, C4, and CAM plant βGlx-Phe values. Notably, we found that vascular plant βGlx-Lysvalues (+2.5 ± 1.6‰) are considerably less variable than βGlx-Phe values, making Lys a useful AA tracer of primary production sources in terrestrial systems. Our multi-trophic level sensitivity analyses demonstrate that TPCSIA estimates are highly sensitive to changes in both βGlx-Phe and TDFGlx-Phe values but that the relative influence of β values dissipates at higher trophic levels.
  4. Our results highlight that primary producer β values are integral to accurate trophic position estimation. We outline four key recommendations for identifying, constraining, and accounting for β value variability to improve TPCSIA estimation accuracy and precision moving forward. We must ultimately expand libraries of primary producer AA δ15N values to better understand mechanistic drivers of β value variation.

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Methods in Ecology and Evolution

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